Waiting at the border, migrants lean on tradition

Stitching mantas—tortilla covers—is a traditional craft among Latin American women. As migrants wait out the U.S. immigration bureaucracy in a Mexican border city, mantas are increasingly a lifeline.

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SOURCEYes! Magazine
Image credit: Lourdes Medrano

One early afternoon, Sandra Vázquez sits on an old metal bench outside a bus station, next to two other women who, like her, gingerly embellish a piece of cotton fabric with decorative patterns. Buses come and go, day after day, but the women stay. And, needle and thread in hand, they keep stitching.

Vázquez and the other women are among scores of migrants stranded in Mexican border towns waiting for their U.S. asylum cases to be processed under ever-changing policies and a lingering pandemic. After fleeing her mountainous hamlet in Guerrero, a state in southwestern Mexico where conflict and violence have uprooted many residents, Vázquez and 11 members of her extended family ended up in Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, in July.

Sandra Vázquez and two migrant women. Photo by Lourdes Medrano.

They found shelter near the border crossing at the bus station, a place that has gradually turned into a makeshift refuge for soaring numbers of migrants arriving in the city just south of Arizona. There, Vázquez soon joined other women who daily embroidered cloths, called mantas or servilletas in Spanish, which are used to keep tortillas, bread, and other foods warm. “When I embroider, I don’t think about everything that is happening, everything that I have lived through,” Vázquez says.

About two decades before Vázquez and her family arrived in Nogales, embroidered mantas began appearing in the borderlands. In the 1990s, when the United States implemented a new strategy to deter illegal border crossings, migrants were pushed away from cities into remote, harsh desert terrain. The casualties rose in subsequent years, with migrants perishing in relentless heat, others being picked up by the Border Patrol, and some just disappearing, with only their belongings left behind. Among the shoes, handkerchiefs, and backpacks strewn on the desert floor, and that area residents recovered, lay the mantas, some ripped by the elements. Many people viewed the remnants as trash, but Valerie Lee James, an artist who lived on a ranch near the border, says she understood what the mantas she picked up meant for migrants. In Latin America, mantas or servilletas stitched with bright depictions of people, animals, and objects are family treasures frequently passed down from one generation to another.

“I wanted nothing more than to find their rightful owners someday,” James says. She never found the owners of those she came across, but those desert mantas would later lead to cross-border alliances that culminated in a migrants’ embroidery project under the auspices of a nonprofit she established, Artisans Beyond Borders.

Vázquez is one of dozens of women, and some men, at various Nogales shelters participating in Bordando Esperanza, Embroidering Hope. The program, which involves volunteers from Arizona and Sonora, aims to bring comfort to migrants in times of uncertainty, James says. “All of these folks are stuck at the border now, and so they need work like this more than ever. Oftentimes, this kind of work is the closest to any kind of psychological well-being that they’re going to be able to have, to take a moment out to find some peace.”

To handle a huge influx of Central Americans seeking asylum, the Trump administration in 2019 put into effect the contentious Migrant Protection Protocols, which forced migrants to await case proceedings south of the border rather than in the U.S. In early 2021, the Biden administration halted the program and allowed some 10,000 asylum seekers into the country, but the program has since been restored. For some migrants in Nogales, the craft of embroidery makes the wait a little less excruciating.

Studies show that engaging in embroidery and other textile crafts can alleviate stress and reduce anxiety. Migrant advocates in Nogales say stitching pleasant memories onto fabric can soothe emotional wounds sustained before or during often-arduous migration journeys northward. For Vázquez, a mother of two, the needlework keeps her mind off her cousin’s killing, the threatening extortionists back in Guerrero who demanded a fee if she wanted to keep her market stall open, and her family’s long wait for an opportunity to plead their case for political asylum in the United States. “We can’t return home,” she says. “I want my children to be safe, to have a good life.”

Vázquez’s family is one of 14 from Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras staying on the grounds of the bus station, says Norma Ascencio, who works there and oversees the embroidery project. A short distance from a U.S. port of entry, the station over the years became a gathering place for Mexican migrants who were deported from the U.S. and, more recently, for many Central Americans and other asylum seekers who must now await their legal fate in Mexico. “Some people have been here for 16 months,” Ascencio says.

Migrants get just one meal a day at a nearby soup kitchen, so they must find ways to earn an income for basic needs. For the artisans, embroidered mantas bring in some money for bus fare, groceries, and personal hygiene products. Their craft is sold online and at festival venues north of the border. On a recent day, Ascencio stood behind a kitchen table, folding a stack of finished mantas that James would take to Arizona—as she and other volunteers have done for about two years.

Now well-established, Bordando Esperanza soon will move in a new direction. Manta-makers and project coordinators in Nogales are working to develop a self-sustaining co-op model to create a market for the migrants’ handiwork.

A few miles from the bus station, at Casa de la Misericordia migrant shelter, a 2-acre property atop a hill, project participants stitch multihued threads onto square pieces of fabric. When they’re not cooking or cleaning, migrants often embroider at outdoor tables, where they have a bird’s-eye view of tract housing similar to dwellings built for workers in American-owned maquiladoras, factories that assemble electronics and other products for export.

Beatriz Alvarado began to create mantas soon after arriving at the shelter nearly a year ago. Although the 26-year-old did not embroider at home in El Salvador, she soon picked up the intricacies of the work from the other artisans. Like many asylum seekers frustrated with having to wait in Mexico for long periods, she sneaked across the border with her 9-year-old daughter. People smugglers separated mother and daughter, and while the girl made it to Florida and is staying with relatives, U.S. authorities caught Alvarado and sent her back to Mexico. Torn by circumstances that keep her apart from her daughter in the U.S. and her husband and 5-year-old daughter in El Salvador, Alvarado turns to embroidery for some respite.

On a recent afternoon, Alvarado was in the shelter’s kitchen gathering ingredients for the Salvadoran pupusas she would make the next day, when it would be her turn to cook. On a break from her chores, she showed off a cellphone picture of a manta embroidered with a pastoral scene reminiscent of her homeland. There’s beauty in El Salvador, she says, but criminal elements make it difficult for law-abiding citizens to live peacefully. Alvarado left her country, she explains, because a gang member who charged her a fee so she could sell garments in her mother’s neighborhood threatened to kill her when she refused to keep paying. At the shelter, when her mind wanders to those days, she pulls out a manta and starts stitching. “Embroidering helps me to de-stress, to not spend so much time thinking about my situation and about the long wait,” she says.

Alvarado’s handiwork will be part of a national traveling exhibition of 75 mantas that will be on display at churches and schools in cities across the United States beginning next year. Its first public showing will be Jan. 15 at the Good Shepherd United Church of Christ in Sahuarita, Arizona. Any funds raised through the exhibition and donations will support the project for artisans on the border and other migrants who now await resolution of their asylum cases in the U.S., James says. As the Nogales co-op develops, James and other project volunteers in Arizona will focus on educational events in the United States. Their goal is to increase understanding about migration to a country that still holds a promise of hope for many, even in the midst of border restrictions intended to keep rising numbers of migrants out.

At Casa de la Misericordia, shelter director Alma Angélica Macías Mejía has seen the calming effect embroidering has on asylum seekers. The craft flourished after several women who were already creating mantas elsewhere came in last year after the pandemic forced smaller shelters to take in fewer migrants. Strict protocols kept the coronavirus at bay, even as the population in the shelter, mostly from Central America, swelled to nearly 300 migrants, the director says.

Finished mantas. Photo by Lourdes Medrano.

Embroidering helped the first manta-makers get through the worst of the pandemic and waits of up to a year and a half, she says. “They would go under the trees and other outdoor spaces, and it was as if they were family. They shared their stories, they talked about what each one of them was going through, and they encouraged each other.”

Most of those asylum seekers have since moved to the United States to wait for immigration court hearings, and now a different group of artisans among the 120 migrants at the shelter carry on the manta-making tradition. They work closely with project coordinator Ana Delia Chavarín, who offers guidance and makes sure to keep embroidery and crochet supplies fully stocked.

Back at the bus-station-turned-shelter, Sandra Vázquez concentrates on the repetitive rhythms that create lines and shapes on fabric, taking her mind back to the days her grandmother taught her to embroider. She was 12 then, just a year younger than her own daughter is now. The two often sit together on the old metal bench, stitching mantas and waiting for news about their asylum request.

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